Saturday, June 19, 2010

(Further) Thoughts on the ELT

A long, long time ago (March of last year, to be exact) I posted some thoughts on the issues surrounding Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) technology - specifically the options available after the deprecation of the old 121.5 MHz standard and its supersession by the 406 MHz standard. I took note that just keeping the 121.5 MHz "brick" in the airplane met all regulatory obligations under the FAR's. Given my typical mission and operating area, I've been fine with that.

It now appears possible that we have been outflanked. My attention has been drawn, by this posting (courtesy of the estimable Comrade E.B. Misfit) to a recently adopted order of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Therein (see page 10) the order states:

We therefore amend the Commission’s rules to prohibit further certification, manufacture, importation, sale or use of 121.5 MHz ELTs.

In a footnote to that statement, apparently as an attempted justification of the action, the order explains thusly:

Although this may force some aircraft owners and operators to terminate their use of 121.5 MHz ELTs sooner than they may have anticipated when they acquired the device, and impel them to incur the cost of purchasing a 406.0-406.1 MHz ELT as a replacement, the safety benefits of imposing an immediate prohibition on continued use of 121.5 MHz ELTs outweigh the costs. We note, moreover, that the users of 121.5 MHz ELTs have been on notice of the need to transition to 406.0-406.1 MHz ELTs for a long time.

Let us pause for a moment to consider the situation of an aircraft owner who has a 121.5 MHz ELT sitting dormant in the tailcone of the airplane. So far as this device is concerned, what is the meaning of the FCC's prohibition on "use"? As a practical matter, it would seem that the device may not legally be allowed to transmit any signal on the frequency 121.5 MHz. There is no prohibition on possession of the device, and I choose to store mine in the aircraft. Of course, I promise not to "use" it.

Now, of course, the operations of our aircraft are not governed by Part 87 of the FCC's Rules Concerning the Aviation Radio Service. They are, rather, governed by the FAR's and in this particular, by 14CFR91 Subpart C Section 91.207. This section requires that we have an approved ELT attached to the aircraft, describes the preferred manner of attachment and specifies the protocol for replacement of the battery. So far, so good. Then, it states in sub-section (d):

Each emergency locator transmitter required by paragraph (a) of this section must be inspected within 12 calendar months after the last inspection for—
  • (1) Proper installation;
  • (2) Battery corrosion;
  • (3) Operation of the controls and crash sensor; and
  • (4) The presence of a sufficient signal radiated from its antenna.

Item (4) would seem problematic. I can store my approved 121.5 MHz ELT aboard my aircraft without violating the FCC's rules, and I can stay in compliance with FAR section 91.207 until 12 calendar months have elapsed since it was last inspected. At that time, it must be inspected again and that inspection requires that a signal be radiated; thus it will be used in violation of the FCC rule. Rats!

The issuance of the FCC rule has lead to a considerable dust-up on the aviation boards and blogs, with some folks worrying that 60 days after the rule is published in the Federal Register all aircraft carrying 121.5 MHz ELT's will be grounded. By the above logic, I think not. However, it does appear that the rules as presently written (FCC and FAA) will mandate replacement by the end of the inspection interval with a new 406 MHz device. I've got better places to spend those aviation dollars, but if that's the way it is so be it.

It's also possible that we haven't heard the last word. A flurry of activity can be expected from a somewhat embarrassed AOPA (which seems to have been asleep at the switch) and political strings will be pulled. A delay of a year, or so, in implementation would be unsurprising. But it appears that sooner or later we will all be installing 406 MHz ELT's.

It occurs to me that there hasn't been much written here the last few weeks about the flying! That isn't because N631S has been resting on the ground, but rather because the flying - which continues at the usual pace - has been remarkably uneventful. It's been rather pleasant, but not very productive of blog-worthy events. I'm certain that this is temporary.

1 comment:

Eck! said...

If you think that was a miss read the document. Theres a whole bit about a 3:1 split (8.33khz channels). How do yo feel about replacing that few year old 720/760channel com with a new 2000
plus channel com that is likely way more expensive?

FAA, where are you?

AOPA, you don't burn jetA we don't care.

The average Cessna/Piper and so on piston flyer is so screwed.